01/08/2018 14:17 BST | Updated 02/08/2018 11:22 BST

Trolling and Millennial Outrage

The word “troll” will likely conjure up images of young, neurotic teens inveighing against unsuspecting internet users to compensate for their own physical and social deficiencies. However, you might be surprised that trolls are found in almost all pockets of society. Nevertheless, data shows that millennials are disproportionately more likely to troll than any other demographic.

It is well known that in cyberspace people behave differently and say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say. They feel less restrained, they loosen up. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “online disinhibition effect”. 

The online disinhibition effect works in two opposing directions. Although there are those not-so-salutary aspects, the more auspicious side of the phenomenon is that it makes us comfortable sharing our secrets, fears and wishes. Additionally, there is good reason to believe these directions are explained by the positive psychological effects attached to them.

But what is it about this phenomenon explaining why people appear so willing to voice malevolent things? The factor of dissociative anonymity (”you don’t know me”) is key. There are studies showing when provided the chance of separating their actions online from their in-person lifestyles, people feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing.

With most millennials having either been trolls and/or exposed to an environment in which trolling is the norm, there is good reason to assume that they have become conditioned to the effects of dissociative anonymity, particularly the positive psychological effects attached to it. It wouldn’t be unfounded to assume that millennials have become hardwired to dissociative anonymity as they gravitate towards things providing them similar positive psychological effects as what online disinhibition elicits.

This helps explain other phenomena unique to millennials, such as the infamous campus protests. Relatedly, many are enquiring into why millennials are far more inclined to be collectivist with respect to their identity and politics. Indeed, there is a sense in which millennials seem more inclined to see their identity and political goals as involving classified genders, race, and sexuality. This is supported by studies showing high levels of support for collectivist identities and politics, such as high degrees of support for socialism, communism and fascism.

But why are millennials so collectivist regarding their identity and political goals?

Psychologists Gustabe Le Bon and Phillip Zimbardo have looked into how individuals adopt ground mindsets, discovering that individuals feel anonymous in groups, in which attention is transferred from oneself to the external qualities of the group’s actions. The anonymity reduces accountability, stripping the effect of what actions would otherwise signify to an individual’s reputation.

The reason for why so much anti-social behaviour has been reported in many of the political groups with which millennials are oft to disproportionately associate is that group anonymity has the effect of increasing behaviours usually inhibited. This view has been explored by American social psychologist Leon Festinger, who argues that a consequence of anonymity from group identity is individuals forfeiting their moral constraints. Crucially, individuals are forfeiting self-criticism - a hallmark of disassociation.

Similar to the phenomenon underpinning the internet troll, anonymity in groups is causing individuals to not own their behaviour by situating it within a full context, in this instance an integrated in group/out group identity.

Although tempting to argue that trolls become the justice-warriors and the fascists, it would be a faulty generalisation. It’s more that plausible dissociative anonymity helps to explain in part the incommensurate increase in collectivist politics and identities and membership of radical groups.

What does all of this mean?

The internet is having the effect, likely caused by the normalisation of social media use, of conditioning us to dissociative anonymity inasmuch as we go track down other mediums allowing us to be anonymous, mediums that are, at best, divisive, and at worst, virulent.

Through understanding disassociative anonymity we may be able to call it out, changing the direction of our online interactions in pursuance of more empathetic relationships both online and offline.

Being aware of the dangers of dissociative anonymity is a must, always keeping abreast of the fact that the internet is causing a sweeping incursion that goes beyond the realm of trolls.